Regardless of which feeding approach you choose, purees or baby led weaning, introducing iron rich foods from the start is extremely important. Here is a list of top foods and recipes for babies and toddlers.
- Best Sources of Iron for Babies and Toddlers
- Iron for babies and toddlers
- How much iron does a baby or toddler need?
- Signs of iron deficiency anemia
- Top Tips to help increase iron level
- Best Vitamin C Rich foods
- Iron-Rich Food Ideas for Vegetarian Babies and Toddlers
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Iron-rich recipes for Babies and Toddlers
- 3 Month Meal Plan for Babies
Best Sources of Iron for Babies and Toddlers
There are two types of iron, heme (from animal products) and non-heme (found in plant foods).
While heme iron is better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, that doesn't mean you should focus all your efforts on serving meat to your child.
Always aim for variety and be sure to offer an iron-rich food at every meal! There are plenty of choices as listed here that will help meet your baby's needs.
Click on any of the links to learn exactly how to cook and serve the specific food to your baby!
- Red meat (beef, lamb, pork, venison. Chicken liver and other organ meats contain the highest)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Seafood (salmon, sardines)
Non heme Iron
- Beans (particularly white, chickpeas, kidney beans)
- Nuts and seeds (particularly almonds, cashews, pine nuts, hemp, flax, sesame, and pumpkin seeds)
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Whole grains - (particularly amaranth, spelt, oats, and quinoa)
- Fortified baby cereals
- Dark leafy greens – Dandelion, swiss chard, collard, kale, spinach, beet greens
- Baked potato
- Tomato paste - raw tomatoes contain very little iron. But when dried or concentrated, they are a great source!
Generally, fruits are not good sources. These are the top choices:
- Prune juice
- Dried fruits (particularly apricots, dates, figs, raisins)
But a lot of fruits contain vitamin C, which will aid in iron absorption.
Iron for babies and toddlers
Iron is essential for producing red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. It’s also important for optimal brain development.
Iron is also one of the primary reasons that we start solid foods when we do. Babies are born with iron stores built up during their time in the womb. And this is why moms need to maintain a healthy iron status during pregnancy.
But by 6 months of age, it becomes depleted. At the same time, their iron needs increase drastically to support their rapid growth and development.
Inadequate iron intake in infanthood and childhood can lead to cognitive, including decreased attention and memory, as well as behavioral impairment, such as delayed attention, social withdrawal, and learning difficulties.
How much iron does a baby or toddler need?
From the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Birth-6 months: .25 mg
- 7-12 months: 11 mg
- 1-3 years: 7 mg. While there's so much focus on iron for babies, toddlers deserve the same degree of attention. Research shows that this age group have the lowest daily iron intake of any age group across the lifespan.
To give you context:
- 3 ounces steak: 2.5 mg of iron
- ¼ cup cannellini beans: 2 mg
- ½ of egg: .5 mg
- 3 tablespoons fortified infant oat cereal: 5 mg
- 3 ounces chicken liver: 9.9 mg
- 3 ounces salmon: .8 mg
- ¼ cup cooked spinach: 2 mg
- 2 ounces chickpea pasta: 3 mg
- ¼ cup raw tofu: 1.6 mg
- 1 teaspoon hemp seeds: .32mg
- ¼ cup cooked lentils: 2 mg
- 2 tbs peanut butter: .6 mg
Now please don’t start calculating and keeping track of how much your baby is getting daily. Nor stressing about what inhibits iron and what doesn’t.
This will just drive you crazy and lead to lots of anxieties and worries, especially if you are doing baby led weaning and following your baby’s lead.
And don't worry! Your baby won't need 11 mg of iron right away. It is not like once your baby hits 6 months, their iron reserve is completely depleted. It's a gradual process.
What I encourage you to do, once again, is focus on including an iron-rich food at every meal! All those little bites will add up. And as they have more practice with eating, they will be able to meet their iron needs.
Signs of iron deficiency anemia
- Fatigue, weakness
- Slow weight gain
- Pale skin
- Irritability (cranky, fussy)
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands or feet
- No appetite
- For toddlers: difficulty in concentration, shorter attention span
Top Tips to help increase iron level
- Iron from animal products (heme iron) is absorbed better in the body.
- Be sure to combine plant-based iron (non-heme iron) with vitamin-C rich foods.
- It’s true that calcium inhibits the absorption of iron, but there's no need to go out of your way to make sure you absolutely don’t serve calcium-containing foods with iron-rich foods. There are so many factors that affect iron absorption. Calcium is just one of them. What I do recommend is to not serve both at every single meal. .
- For toddlers, don't serve too much milk.
- Choose fortified products, such as fortified infant cereal or bread.
- Use a cast iron pan: cooking foods in cast iron cookware may increase the iron content of meals by up to 16%
Best Vitamin C Rich foods
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
Iron-Rich Food Ideas for Vegetarian Babies and Toddlers
Again, ALWAYS pair non-heme iron sources with Vitamin C rich food. I can't emphasize this enough!
- Pumpkin seed hummus spread on whole grain toast with strawberries
- Iron-rich sauce tossed with legume-based pasta
- Oatmeal with peanut butter, hemp seeds, and mango puree
- Mashed beans with finely chopped kale and quinoa
- Tofu with broccoli and tomato
- Hummus spread on bell pepper strips
- Mashed edamame with sweet potatoes (as a finger food or mashed)
- Lentils with finely chopped broccoli, tahini, garlic powder
- Infant oatmeal cereal with ground flax seeds and sunflower seed butter
Frequently Asked Questions
As you can see, the recommended intake is really high relative to how much food they’re likely to eat. If you've decided to do baby led weaning, you may be especially concerned as not much food will actually make it into your baby's belly during the first days, weeks of starting solids.
As long as you're offering an iron-rich source at every meal along with breast milk and/or infant formula, your baby will likely continue to meet their needs as they wean.
However, it's always best to consult with your healthcare provider, especially if your baby is not developmentally ready to start solids at around 6 months.
Routinely, hemoglobin levels are checked starting at 12 months, usually. But you can always ask to have it checked earlier and supplement accordingly.
What you don't want to do is automatically supplement on your own as it can cause more harm than good, if not necessary. The same goes for toddlers. If they've become really fussy and rejects most or all iron-rich foods, then bring this up to your doctor.
Facts: Iron from heme found in animal sources is absorbed better than iron from non-heme or plant sources. There are also many compounds found in plant foods, such as phytates and tannins, that reduce iron absorption.
Therefore, the recommended dietary intake for iron for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for meat eaters.
Knowing this, If your family is a vegetarian, you may be concerned that your baby is at an even greater risk for iron deficiency.
However, the good news is there are so many great food sources, and with some planning, plant-based diets can be adequate in iron. Check out the tips section above.
Perhaps you were recommended by your doctor, family, or friends to start with iron-fortified rice cereal. This is outdated advice. While it is suitable, your baby does NOT need to start with rice cereal.
It's also high in arsenic, which you want to try to limit as much as possible. That’s not to say you shouldn’t give your baby rice at all, as it is a main staple in so many cultures, but you do want to be mindful.
Having said this, fortified infant cereal is a great option to help meet your baby's nutritional needs. Look for ones made with whole grains, like oat, barley, quinoa, and buckwheat.
Iron-rich recipes for Babies and Toddlers
Lunch/Dinner Ideas (with meat)
Lunch/Dinner Ideas (vegetarian)
3 Month Meal Plan for Babies
All the images of baby plates you see in this post are exactly what I served my daughter during our first three months of starting solids.
From speaking to hundreds of parents and caregivers, it was clear that the greatest challenge is how to ensure their baby is getting optimal nutrition while trying to juggle everything and get through the day.
It can feel so overwhelming and frustrating. And that's why I created my 3 month program - Baby Led Feeding Journey.
I'm here to hand you a complete roadmap. Everything all in one place.
There's SO much this program offers but don’t take my word for it. You can find out more here as well as hear from other moms who've gone through it.
Do you want to minimize picky eating and set a solid foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating habits?
Check out this 3 month mastering self-feeding program! It’s the closest thing to me being in your kitchen